WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the newest member of Utah's all Republican congressional delegation, Rep.-elect Mia Love, is officially sworn in on Tuesday, she'll make history as the first black woman Republican in Congress.
The already high-profile Love is joining what promises to be a powerful Utah delegation, with the state's other three House members and two senators holding key assignments in the GOP-controlled 114th Congress, including chairmanships of two committees in the House and the Senate Finance Committee.
With Republicans taking control of the Senate in the recent election, the longest-serving member of the delegation, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, becomes the Senate president pro tempore, a position that puts him third in the line of presidential succession behind the vice president and the House speaker.
"The delegation is in the strongest position ever to represent Utah," Love said. "I know that people are going to be paying attention to what Utah's doing and are going to be influenced by Utah's policies and how they actually help people."
With Rep. Rob Bishop as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Chris Stewart on the House Appropriations Committee and Hatch as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Utah is being seen as punching above its weight.
“I think this is, pound for pound, the most powerful delegation in the country by quite a ways,” said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and an elections law attorney with a Washington, D.C. law firm.
“It really is a unique moment in time,” Jowers said, for a delegation he described as combining seniority with charisma to compete in an arena where a state’s size along with longevity in office are usually the deciding factors.
“Sen. Hatch has accumulated three of the most valuable commodities in D.C. – seniority, a history of bipartisan success and a great title,” Jowers said, while Chaffetz, the least senior of the new committee chairman from Utah, still had enough political pull to secure one of the most coveted committee chairmanships.
Bishop has seniority. Stewart was first elected in 2012, and Sen. Mike Lee, in 2010. And Love, who raised millions of dollars from around the country to win the seat held by retiring Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, may be attracting more attention than anyone else in the delegation.
Utah's unique role
Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a private, nonpartisan think tank focused on "government, politics, economics and social welfare," said while it’s not unusual for a Republican state like Utah to secure important roles when the GOP is in the majority, it’s the contrast between Hatch and Chaffetz that makes the delegation interesting.
“It’s interesting you share this between, on the one hand, Orrin Hatch, who is now one of the very senior members of Congress .and you have Jason Chaffetz, who has been in Congress relatively briefly,” Barone, also a senior policy analyst for the Washington Examiner, said.
Chaffetz, he said, “has risen to become a committee chairman presumably because the Republican leadership and members of the Republican conference feel that he is a capable person. So I think that’s an interesting combination that Utah has at the present time.”
Hatch, who was first elected to the Senate in 1976, said the success of the delegation is a result of the state's reputation as well as "being adults and working together," showing each other respect.
"I think a lot of it is we've been known as workers, people who really care. And we get along well together. There's never been any real conflict," Hatch said. "It's the Utah way."
“Amazing” is the word Chaffetz uses to describe Utah’s role as the 114th Congress prepares to convene.
“It’s rare to have a chairman, let alone two from our state at the same time,” Chaffetz said, noting other Utahns also hold key national positions. “It’s pretty amazing to have all this converging at once.”
Gov. Gary Herbert will become head of the National Governors Association this summer while Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker is president of the National League of Cities, and state Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, is president-elect of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
So why now? “I don’t know and I don’t want to ask. When the stars align, you just take it and keep smiling. Let’s not ask too many questions,” said Chaffetz, first elected in 2008.
The work ahead
Bishop, who is spearheading legislation to limit a president's power to designate national monuments, said the delegation should have more control than ever over the congressional agenda.
"I think it gives us the ability to get things done we have not been able to do before,'' Bishop said. "Being at the right place at the right time is a big factor in what is going on."
Stewart said Chaffetz and Bishop worked hard for their new posts.
“I don’t think it was luck, I’ll tell you that,” Stewart said. “Rob was patient and waited and Jason is recognized as a younger guy, but a guy a lot of people respect.”
Lee, who is the new chairman of the Senate Steering Committee that acts as a conservative caucus, said one reason for the plum assignments may be that Utah is seen as setting an example.
“I think the Utah model for governance works. I think people can see things work well in our state. The economy, by and large, has done well,” Lee said. “We have economic mobility that outpaces that in most surrounding states and certainly most parts of the country.”
Herbert, who is in Washington for National Governors Association meetings this week, has often called Utah a model for the rest of the country.
Now the congressional delegation is poised to share the state's strengths, he said.
"I've often said the cream rises to the top and, more and more, the members of Utah's delegation are recognized as leaders for their work in Congress. As a state, we have people in prominent positions and the roles they are taking over will prove to be beneficial to our state and to the nation," the governor said.
Seniority is a big factor in Utah’s strong showing in Congress, Brigham Young University political science professor David Magleby said, something that has helped the state’s delegation to Washington, D.C., before.
“This is not new for Utah. We’ve long had people in senior positions that have had influence,” Magleby said, citing past Republican senators, Wallace Bennett, the father of former Sen. Bob Bennett, and Jake Garn, as well as longtime House member, Jim Hansen, who retired in 2003 after serving 22 years.
And Utah’s freshman members of Congress have held important spots, Magleby said, including Democrats Wayne Owens, who voted as a member of the House Judiciary Committee to impeach then-President Richard Nixon, and Gunn McKay, Hansen’s predecessor, the last Utahn to serve on the House Appropriations Committee.
Magleby also said while Utah has done well when it comes to securing committee chairmanships, the state is not a player when it comes to congressional leadership.
“I think most congressional scholars would agree that it’s impressive that a relatively small state has that influence at the committee level,” Magleby said. “But even though Utah has been predictably Republican, we haven’t cracked into leadership.”
Will it matter?
Congressional scholar Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the influential public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., doesn't have high expectations for the incoming Congress, given what he termed the ideological posturing of the GOP during President Barack Obama's time in office.
Mann said the Republican-controlled House and Senate are likely to pass legislation the president will veto rather than work to reach a compromise with the Democratic administration, accomplishing little.
"I'm a little bit skeptical of talking about states punching above their weight, especially on the Republican side, and that's all you have," Mann said. "They've got to show they can govern."
Dave Woodard, a political science professor and pollster at Clemson University in South Carolina, said the Republicans in the new Congress will have a significant impact on the party’s future, especially in the 2016 presidential race.
“These people who are in Congress right now will play a big role in what the mood of the electorate will be in next year’s election,” Woodard said. “Hearing about how powerful the delegation is in Utah, I think they’ll play a big role in what the tone and tenor is in Washington.”
That tone, he said, will stem from the state’s reputation as conservative and Mormon, focused on family values and could help determine if what Woodard called the Republican realignment succeeds.
For Utah, the new positions held by the state’s delegation means “our members will be in the room when important decisions are made,” Jowers said. “Utah has countless specific issues that are very important to the state that are always in peril, particularly with a Democratic president.”
Those issues include public lands and the potential designation of new national monuments, the future of Hill Air Force Base, and state control over health care, education and other areas, Jowers said.
“Utahns have historically been very concerned with the federal government’s respect for its religious, family and Western values,” he said. “These leadership positions will guarantee that our state’s values are heard and gives us some juice to perhaps see those values actually make a difference in the laws of our nation.”